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Green Tea Could Counter Oral Cancer, and Here's How

Jan 30, 2015 06:02 PM EST
green tea
(Photo : Pixabay)

Green tea has long been celebrated as healthy drink. Now a new study has found that not only does this beverage encourage good health, but it could even trigger a cycle that kills oral cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, which details exactly how epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) - a compound found in green tea - specifically targets cancerous cells for elimination. Amazingly, this compound can even be found in naturally flavored green tea chewing gums.

Joshua Lambert, researcher and co-director of Penn State's Center for Plant and Mushroom Foods for Health, recently explained in a statement that past studies have near-conclusively shown that EGCG somehow targets and kills oral cancer cells in a body, but experts have not been clear as to how or why this was occurring.

To get to the bottom of this conundrum, Lambert and his colleagues studied normal human oral cells side-by-side with human oral cancer cells. These cells were grown in a lab and then exposed to concentrated EGCG. They were then collected again and again at various stages of the exposure.

"We also took a lot of pictures, so we could use fluorescent dyes that measure mitochondrial function and oxidative stress and actually see these things develop," said Lambert.

What they found was that EGCG was damaging essential cell "power plants," also known as mitochondria, but only in cancer cells.

"It looks like EGCG causes the formation of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in cancer cells, which damages the mitochondria," Lambert explained. "The mitochondria responds by making more reactive oxygen species."

Like a Hollywood-esque series of explosions, these radicals spark a chain reaction that causes widespread damage until the cell destroys itself. (Scroll to read on...)

A green tea plantation.
(Photo : pixabay) A green tea plantation.

This was a huge surprise for researchers, as green tea is famous for its antioxidant properties, where high concentrations of catechins normally prevent these types of damaging reactions from occurring.

In non-cancer cells, the tea compounds did just that, with EGCG even helping to protect cells from free radicals by turning on a protein called sirtuin 3 that helps produce and use antioxidants.

Lambert suggests that EGCG then should be thought of as a switch - one that could be promising in future research looking into treatments for more than just oral cancer.

"It plays an important role in mitochondrial function and in antioxidant response in lots of tissues in the body, so the idea that EGCG might selectively affect the activity of sirtuin 3 in cancer cells - to turn it off - and in normal cells - to turn it on - is probably applicable in multiple kinds of cancers."

Still, it's important to note that EGCG work has not even moved on to animal studies just yet, meaning that we are a very long way away from turning it into an effective treatment option.

It also should go without saying that chugging green tea is not going to be enough.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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